The latest Michael Bay monstrosity that is the fourth Transformers movie is making its usual millions at the box office. But while people are taking their kids to see Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and his buddies blow stuff up on the big screen, it makes me wonder how many of them watched the endless battle between the Autobots and Decepticons on the small screen? Now I’m not talking about the pre-school versions of them or the pretty good “Beast Wars” version, or even the most recent “Prime” version, I mean the Generation 1 animated series that started it all. Even more to the point if they love these two hour long commercials for the military, music systems, and soda did they ever watch the film where the Transformers first graced the big screen in 1986 with the now classic animated film “Transformers: The Movie”?
The motives for the making of the film were not unlike those on which the current state these robots-in-disguise now rests. It’s all about greed. Make more new robots with celebrity voices, bigger action, bigger explosions, less story, even lesser acting and you get a true age of extinction. Similar thinking went into the making of a feature film based on a cartoon whose original intention for being created was to sell toys. So Hasbro gave the filmmakers six times the budget of the cartoon, asked for new characters to be created, and made a movie. With celebrity voices.
“It is the year 2005” as our narrator from both the show and the film Victor Caroli informs us as the war between the Autobots and Decepticons still rages on. After losing Cybertron to Megatron and his minions, Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) and the heroic Autobots are doing all they can to survive both on their home planet and on Earth. During a run to Autobot City on Earth, Megatron (Frank Welker) and his crew attack and actually kill Autobots, something that was unheard of in the TV world of both Transformers and G.I. Joe. The laser blasts never killed anyone, and when a jet was hit, you always saw that pilot in his parachute coming down in the background. But here with a heavy metal soundtrack (ok, it was more hair-band rock, but you get the idea) Robots were dying with smoke coming out of their eyes and mouth as their lights were being extinguished all over the place. These were characters you followed on adventures for years, it was kinda brutal. The battle leads to Autobot City in a fight to the end them all, there is death and dying on both sides as we are introduced to the new blood like Hot Rod (Judd Nelson), Arcee (Susan Blu), and Blurr (John Moschitta Jr. aka: The Micro Machines guy) and some old blood in Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack) and Kup (Lionel Stander) but new to us. As the city is on the verge of falling Optimus Prime shows up to stop Megatron once and for all “No matter the cost”. The incredibly epic fight takes out both of them, but the fall of Megatron causes Starscream (Chris Latta) and the rest of the Decepticons to retreat. Afterwards the matrix of leadership is in-trusted to Ultra Magnus who takes what Autobots are left and try to rebuild the city, but when they learn of a planet eater named Unicron (Orson Wells) is heading to Earth, they quickly jump into action but also must deal with Unicron’s new creations made from dying Decepticons led by Galvatron (Leonard Nimoy).
Watching it now, I have to say I still find it more entertaining than most of the current Transformers films, not from a nostalgic aspect or as a purist fanboy, though I can’t deny that is part of it. Mainly though, it does what most films based on TV shows did at the time, it advances the original storyline, has a lot of action, it brings in new fresh faces, and still manages to not drastically change the status quo. It’s still Autobots vs. Decepticons after the movie. It’s got the birth of new hero, but it’s not just his story, it’s an ensemble piece, with interesting things going on with a lot of the characters. And it pays equal attention to not only the stories of the heroes, but the villains as well. The humor is not as funny as when I was younger, and of course, there are times when the animation looks amazing and times where it feels choppy and cheap, but it never ruins it. I still found it a fun watch.
The music feels like a perfect fit for the movie and the Stan Bush power ballad “The Touch” still gives me goose bumps when I watch the movie, and is still one of my favorite songs of the 80’s. Plus it’s still one of the best call-backs in film history with its use in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights”, staring interestingly enough, Mark Wahlberg, the star of the most recent “Transformers: Age of Extinction”. It’s all connected and comes back around again, just like in “Looper.”
As I mentioned “Transformers: The Movie” was intended, much like the original TV cartoon to sell more toys, and in this case sell new toys, so they killed off a bunch of old characters and some main ones in order to introduce new ones to take over the eventual third season of the TV show, though I do remember the series not being as good as the first couple of seasons, except when they brought back old characters. So not much has changed in the way of business between then and today when it comes to dealing with these kinds of intellectual properties, except that it’s on a much larger scale and deals with not only millions of people but dollars as well.
Despite all that has happened with these giant robots over time, the Transformers still have a special place in my heart. It was one of the first times I could watch a TV show, read the comic books, play with the toys, then go to the movies and see them on the big screen, and yeah I’ll say it, wear the underwear. It was a time when this could happen and you would not feel like you were being taken advantage of. You can chalk that up to the ignorance of youth, but I don’t feel so jaded thinking about it, or even as I take part in it once again only this time as a parent. My son wants a Toothless toy, because he likes the “How to Train Your Dragon” movie, I gladly buy him one. If he ends up getting into the Bay version of Transformers instead of the animated version I push upon him so be it. I will still be the one to get him his first Dinobot. And we will play.
–Robert L. Castillo